Neutering the Watchdog Benefits the Thief

Dennis "Mitch" Maley
This week, Manatee County Commissioners approved a final budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Funding for the two additional audit staff that the county clerk had requested was noticeably absent. The blatantly political nature of this decision on how best to spend the people’s money should alarm taxpayers across the ideological spectrum.

Angel Colonneso has been Manatee County Clerk & Comptroller since 2015 when she succeeded the late, great R.B. "Chips” Shore. As I wrote at the time of his passing, Shore was about as lofty a role model for elected officials as you would ever be likely to find. Colonneso had begun her professional career in the clerk’s office but was a lawyer in the state attorney’s office when Shore lured her back to his department as his in-house counsel with plans to groom her as his successor.

When Shore passed in 2015, then-governor Rick Scott appointed Colonneso to serve as the interim clerk until the next election. Voters followed suit, electing her to the office in 2016 and re-electing her in 2020. By all accounts, she has been a worthy successor, and I’m quite certain that if Shore is looking down, he remains pleased with his decision. That said, I’m even more certain that the current state of Manatee County government would have Shore weeping a puddle across the heavens, and that is where these two matters intersect.

One of the most egregious effects of the dominance of money in politics post-Citizens v. United has been the insidious decline in the quality of public office holders that followed. Once where the money lined up became very nearly the only thing that mattered in terms of who won, those pulling the strings quickly seemed to realize that 1.) they don’t need to spend time and energy finding the "best” candidate, and 2.) it is often quite easier to manage deeply flawed and largely empty-headed individuals than those whose service is complicated by such things as ethics, principals, and a genuine concern for the future of our society.

This can be observed from the very top of our federal government all the way to the bottom, but seems much more pronounced at the lower, localized levels where so many fewer voters pay attention. The degradation in the simple, objective qualifications and resumes of those who sit on our county commission in recent years is a clear example. But while policymakers play a critical role in government at the county level, staff and administration are arguably more important, if only because you are all the less likely to find many policy matter experts among board members at that station of elected politics.

So, when special interests move beyond the policymakers and begin infecting the actual engines of public policy, the results can be particularly disastrous. Our county government is responsible for an enormous amount of critical services that, if improperly engineered, can have a deleterious effect not only on residents' quality of life but our very ability to function as a society. Most of you have long suspected that our county government has been completely captured by special interests. However, it has only recently been brought to light the depths to which both policy and administration are being directed by an outside hand. 

Enter Colonneso, who has always conducted herself with the same admirable impartiality as her predecessor and has proven herself equally willing to stand up against bad government practices, even when they come from members of her own Republican party—a particularly thorny endeavor in Manatee County.

When Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge immediately moved to fire sitting county administrator Cheri Coryea after being elected in 2020, and it looked like he had enough support from other developer-installed commissioners to actually get it done, it was Colonesso who flew across the street and—after making it clear that she was not attempting to advise on policy—implored the new members to at least take enough time to actually learn how county government works and, hopefully, come to fully appreciate the magnitude of such a potentially reckless move before undertaking it.

She of course got nowhere, as public records revealed that Van Ostenbridge was receiving, shall we say, advice on that and other policy matters from the developers that put him in office right up to the morning of the meeting itself. Once Coryea was gone, a mass exodus of talented and experienced bureaucrats followed, and former school board member Scott Hopes was installed in her place. Chaos ensued and, again, it was Colonesso who sounded alarms.

Under Hopes, the county quickly became stingy with public information, leading some media and members of the public to instead request records from the clerk’s office. County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh—who is herself facing an upcoming ethics hearing, in part because she overstepped her authority to direct staff—quickly inquired as to how our publication actually managed to receive public information that she acknowledged the county had not provided us. Why wasn’t the clerk—a fellow Republican—playing ball, seemed to be the real question.

Once it became even more clear through court cases that the county was in fact withholding public information, the clerk had the inspector general’s office audit the manner in which the county was handling public records requests. It was during this investigation that Van Ostenbridge and Baugh flagged the clerk’s budget request for two additional staff members in the IG office. Unlike most instances in which flagged items come back for discussion during the budget process, it seems that it was simply decided that there was no way that the only department that has any real teeth corrupt officials should worry about getting bitten by would get additional resources.

In fact, when Colonneso took the unusual step of writing a letter to commissioners as they considered whether to retain Hopes at his contract’s end, detailing a host of concerns over how the administration was conducting the county’s business, it seems it put a large target on her back for 2024. As TBT recently reported, text messages between Hopes and Anthony Pedicini, a Tampa-based political consultant who happens to represent candidates and PACs associated with politically-connected developer Carlos Beruff, seem to suggest that the wheels may already be in motion. "We need a new clerk,” Pedicini texted Hopes on May 21, to which Hopes responded, "Without a doubt.” 

Keep in mind that this is only what was revealed in text messages from a single, somewhat narrow public records request. I can only imagine how many other conversations on the matter took place that the public is not privy to. One might wonder why Hopes and Beruff’s campaign guy are texting at all, given that county administrator is not an elected position, or what Hopes meant when he began the thread with "are we keeping you busy?” but I doubt they’d wonder for long.

Come November, it is all but certain that Beruff and company will hold sway over all seven seats on the county commission. Whether Hopes’ continued scandals and bungling of simple matters of administration will see him replaced by another frontman or the never-admit-you-made-a-mistake brand of politics will prevail, is largely irrelevant. Once developers have the entire board, they’ll next turn toward finding another empty suit in need of some self-esteem and a hefty paycheck to run against Colonneso in 2024 and then spend a few hundred thousand dollars painting her as a socialist, commie RINO with voters—a majority of whom will have no idea who either candidate is aside from glossy mailers and campaign ads.

Meanwhile, the very necessary work that competent public officials and bureaucrats should be performing will continue to be watered down by the talentless hacks whose ranks seem to grow by the week. Our priorities will continue to favor the bottom line of special interests over the quality of life of residents and the future of our community, while voters fight on Facebook over Trump and Biden, McConnell and Pelosi, etc, rather than training their focus on the more important crisis that is occurring right under their noses. Wake up, Manatee County. There’s not much time left to start turning this big ship from the patch of the giant iceberg.

Dennis "Mitch" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times and the host of our weekly podcast. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University and later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Click here for his bio. His 2016 short story collection, Casting Shadows, was recently reissued and is available here.

Reader Comments
John Mcdonald
SEP 18, 2022  •  Bring in the DOJ and Start investigating these bough5 and paid for politicians!! NOW!!
SEP 18, 2022  •  Dennis,Talent less hacks really? We do now have a park named for our esteemed Governor who sends potential employees for our many business who need employees to to other states. Guessing the next immigrants offered flights will also want to go to MV vs South Florida where fellow Venezuelan refugees are.
SEP 18, 2022  •  Every Federal agency has 'Tips and Complaints' aka Whistleblower contacts. (Sometimes you have to go further than what Google provides up front.) If readers have unassailable FACTS (rather than lengthy opinions) that implicate our local business and political leader in malfeasance, share your concerns. Or you can just continue to sit here and complain. Your choice.
Cat L
SEP 18, 2022  •  Hopefully I'm wrong, but it may be that collapse of a significant system may have to happen before they recognize what they've done. When the civil engineers are concerned, there's cause to be concerned.
Paul D. Smith
SEP 18, 2022  •  Something to think about; No Good Dead Goes Unpunished. Think about who is actually being punished besides the C of C.
Paul Finer
SEP 18, 2022  •  Angel needs to call in a federal I G for help in jointly funded projects. The Manatee I G cannot do an adequate job. Start here:
SEP 18, 2022  •  The ice berg is already sitting and waiting to hit. These idiots don't care.....Angel can do only so much.....and those employees that felt like they made a difference have long gone and more are considering it every single day...the ship is wandering everywhere looking for that iceberg